Water Quantity

Surface Water

Alberta has a good supply of water; however, variations in geography, climate, and the hydrologic cycle create regions of scarcity. Most of Alberta’s population and industries get their water from surface water sources, such as rivers and lakes. These sources are "renewed" each year by runoff from rain and snow. For example, several major rivers in Alberta start from glaciers in Banff and Jasper. Snow melt is the largest contributor to the annual flows in these rivers, followed by rainfall.

The amount of runoff contributing to river flow varies from year to year. As snowpacks dwindle in the summer, rivers become more dependent on rainfall, storms and groundwater inflow as baseflow. The water that melts from glaciers increases river flows in late summer and fall, particularly in dry years when rainfall is minimal.

During certain times of the year, smaller rivers and streams may not be able to supply the quantities of water required by a region’s economy and population. During times of water scarcity, it is more important than ever for Albertans to conserve water, and use it as efficiently and productively as possible.


Many rural Albertans rely on groundwater for drinking, stock watering and small scale agriculture. Industry demand for groundwater is consistently increasing. It is anticipated that this trend will continue. Groundwater is found in pore spaces between underground material that may be unconsolidated (loose) such as sand and gravel, or consolidated (hardened) such as sandstone and conglomerate. These underground water bearing materials are called aquifers. Like surface water, groundwater supplies are not evenly distributed across the province. Aquifer depths, yields and water quality also vary.

Measuring Water Quantity in Alberta

Water quantity is evaluated differently for rivers and streams, lakes, groundwater and precipitation (rain and snow fall).

  • Rivers and streams –Streamflow hydrographs are produced from gauges installed in waterways, indicating how much water flows past a fixed point, over time.
  • Lakes – Lake bathymetry is produced from sonar devices that measure variations in water depth, and then links this measurement to the lake's surface area and volume change with depth. This allows for estimates of water gained and lost as the lake's level goes up or down.
  • Groundwater – Difficult to quantify because of geological variables, but can be achieved using computer flow modeling. A pump test can demonstrate the sustainable productivity of the aquifer in the immediate vicinity of a groundwater well. However, the groundwater resource of an entire area is at best an approximation.
  • Precipitation – Environment Canada, Alberta Environment and Parks and partners have a network of precipitation gauges throughout the province, providing a good measure of distribution and quantity of the province's rainfall. Snowpack is also measured throughout the winter to provide an estimate of spring runoff. This is critical in evaluating potential water availability. Alberta also collects real-time precipitation data from many stations and regularly produces summary maps of the province-wide distribution of precipitation.

River Basins

A watershed, or basin, is the area of land that catches precipitation and drains it to a water body, such as a marsh, lake, stream or river. Watersheds can range in size from a few hectares to thousands of square kilometres.

There are seven major watersheds, or river basins, in Alberta.

  • Athabasca River Basin
  • Beaver River Basin
  • Hay River Basin
  • Milk River Basin
  • North Saskatchewan River Basin
  • Peace/Slave River Basin
  • South Saskatchewan River Basin

Healthy, functioning watersheds can provide clean and abundant water resources to agricultural, municipal, industrial and recreational users; help maintain healthy crops and crop yields; support wildlife habitat; and regulate natural processes such as soil erosion and sedimentation. Healthy watersheds greatly contribute to the overall health of the environment and the quality of life of Albertans.


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Updated: Sep 9, 2016